Election 2012: Cook County recorder of deeds up for grabs

July 5, 2011

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Updated at 2:30 p.m.

We know you’ve heard about all the Republicans salivating at the chance to take on President Obama next year. Will Sarah Palin run or won’t she? Will Rick Perry pull a George W. Bush? Why can’t Newt Gingrich make his staff happy?

If this obscenely early coverage of national politics has you frustrated, never fear. We are here to offer you obscenely early coverage of local politics. Why read about the race for the White House when you can read about the race for Cook County recorder of deeds? (We are only half-joking here.)

Today we begin to look at some of the 2012 races, and figured, why not start with recorder of deeds? The much ignored (if not forgotten) office deserves some attention, too. After all, it’s responsible for tracking land sales, mortgages and tax liens. (Its website is the go-to place to dig up dirt on your enemies.) And the upcoming race for this post is a complicated web of old alliances.

Goodbye, Gene?

Eugene “Gene” Moore has served as recorder of deeds since 1999, when Cook County Democratic officials picked him, then a state lawmaker, to fill out the term of Jesse White, who’d just been elected Illinois secretary of state.

White had wanted his aide and political ally Darlena Williams-Burnett to replace him, but then-Cook County Board President John Stroger pushed for Moore, who at the time controlled the Proviso Township Democrats. As a compromise, Williams-Burnett won the #2 spot in the office. White, her political benefactor, “didn’t really want to fight with the elder statesmen,” Williams-Burnett told me.

Now there’s a new fight brewing. Moore has told Democratic bigwigs - including the county party's chair, Assessor Joe Berrios - that he will not seek a fourth term in 2012. Moore’s spokesman has not returned my call. Williams-Burnett, who often acts as spokesperson for the office, confirmed on Tuesday that Moore is not running.

“That is what he has confided in me,” Williams-Burnett shared on Tuesday morning. “He’d support me if I ran for the seat.”

And that is not a sure thing, William-Burnett said, noting that she will only seek the office if she is slated (endorsed) by the Cook County Democratic Party. "Like most things" in the county, she said, “the big boys make the determination.”

The “big boys” are the 80 ward and township committeemen who make up the Cook County Democratic Party. Without their support, Williams-Burnett said, it’s just too tough to run a county-wide race. As her husband, Chicago Ald. Walter Burnett, put it, “That office has never been one to raise a lot of money.”

Another potential contender is Karen Yarbrough, a state representative since 2001. She has ties (and not friendly ones) to both Moore and Williams-Burnett. In 2006, Yarbrough snagged the Proviso Township committeeman’s post from Moore (that same position that helped Moore win the recorder's office in the first place), and in 2010, she beat out Williams-Burnett in the race for Democratic state central committeewoman of the 7th Congressional District. Quite a web, right?

Yarbough’s political office hasn’t answered my email or phone call, and her government office directed me back to her political office. So I haven’t been able to confirm her interest in running for recorder’s office.

Another state lawmaker is confirming his interest. Al Riley is a Democrat from south suburban Olympia Fields, and also Rich Township supervisor.

Riley’s campaign manager, John Moore (no relation to the incumbent recorder), told me the representative is focused on running for re-election to his newly redistricted seat in the General Assembly. But what about the recorder of deeds post? “We’re intrigued,” he said. (During our conversation, he went on to say that Riley is “evaluating,” “looking at it hard” and “giving serious consideration to it.”)

If he decides to make a go of it, Riley - unlike Williams-Burnett - will not abandon a run if party leaders choose not to slate him. But he’s not a total rebel. John Moore said that if Gene Moore runs again, Riley will not challenge him, noting the respect that Riley has for the incumbent. He added, "It is our understanding that he's not running."

In 2010, Moore knocked off a potentially difficult primary challenger in Ald. Ed Smith, who had the backing of Mayor Richard Daley. Smith, who left the city council last year, managed to win just 37 percent of the vote. Since that race, Moore has done nothing in terms of fundraising. He reports about $1,600 in his campaign account. His personal finances are also shaky. The Tribune reported last month that Moore faces some serious difficulties.